Five questions: Pittsburgh Pirates

I’ve been a Pirates fan since 1970. It was a great time to be a kid who loved baseball—six division titles (plus three second-place finishes) and two world titles in the first 10 seasons. Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente led to Dave Parker and John “The Candy Man” Candelaria

Still, there were the heart-stopping bleak moments, such as Bob Moose’s wild pitch in the 1972 playoffs and the agony repeated 20 years later on Francisco Cabrera’s pinch hit to left. Many people say they hate Barry Bonds, but I have to point out that the Pirates won their division each of Bonds’ last three seasons in Pittsburgh—and haven’t had a winning season since, allowing Rocco DeMaro to teach us the meaning of ignominy.

So here it is, the dawn of the 2011 season, and I have volunteered for the task of asking (and answering) five questions about my still-beloved team.

Are there any hitters left in the farm system?

After the promotions of Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata, Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker gave the Pirates a solid, young core to build the lineup around, there’s little left in the system. Only two position players, shortstop Brock Holt and catcher Tony Sanchez, both of whom played at High-A Bradenton (and both of whom suffered seasoning-ending injuries halfway through the season), project as major league-average performers at their positions, but at least those are two positions where the Pirates are currently in need of an upgrade.

Sanchez, 23, was the team’s first-round pick in 2009 from Boston College and was considered a signability pick at the time, but he has put up good batting numbers in his two years in the minors. They don’t translate quite as well, showing a .241/.309/.371 line for 2011, but that’s almost average for major league catchers. In 125 pro games he has a 0 Fielding Runs Above Average, but that can be quite an improvement on Ryan Doumit behind the plate.

Holt, also 23 and drafted in 2009 out of Rice, projects to a .267/.314/.382 line and has had +10 fielding runs in 113 pro games. Not stunning, but better than Ronny Cedeno. Both expect to start the season at Double-A Altoona and could be with the Pirates some time in 2012.

How long until the pitching improves?

While the lineup has promise, the pitching staff is a mess. There are 10 pitchers in camp who started more than nine games in the majors last year, although only Paul Maholm (33) had more than 26 starts. Of those 10, only Maholm, Scott Olsen and Kevin Correia spent the whole of last season in the majors, and I don’t expect the last two to survive the upcoming season with the team.

Oliver projects the top four starters to be fairly average—Jason McDonald (projected 4.42 ERA), Ross Ohlendorf (4.67), Maholm (4.68) and Charlie Morton (4.77)—and honestly, if they meet projections it will be a big boost over last year. After that, there’s Olsen (4.88) who’s likely to start the season in the bullpen, and then Correia, Jeff Karstens, Brad Lincoln, Brian Burres and Daniel McCutchen all projected to have ERAs in excess of 5.00.

As far as the farm system, Rudy Owens has put together two quality seasons, with Major League Equivalent ERAs of 4.11 and 3.51, and is expected to open the season in Triple-A. I expect him to be in Pittsburgh by the trading deadline, as his projected 4.16 ERA would lead the staff. Bryan Morris and Jeff Locke are also seen as prospects, but so far Oliver still projects them with ERAs above 5.00. Still, it might be better to see those guys at least by 2012 than the likes of Olsen and Correia.

On the bright side, in a span of four days last August, the Pirates signed what were arguably the three best teenage pitchers in North America. But with Jamieson Taillon and Stetson Allie both only 19 and Luis Heredia only 16 years old, it’s likely to be two or three seasons before any of them reach Pittsburgh, barring, of course, any injuries, which seem to follow Pirates pitching prospects. I might have to add some West Virginia Power games to my traveling schedule this summer.

Is the defense really that bad, or is the pitching at least partially to blame?

DIPS theory, at its extreme, says that pitchers are responsible only for hit batsmen, walks, strikeouts and home runs. More realistically, pitchers are likely responsible for about 20 percent of hits on balls in play, but defense efficiency (DER) follows DIPS and assumes that all runners who reach by hit or error are on the defense. In the past five seasons, the Pirates have finished 29th, 27th, 28th, 14th and 30th out of 30 in DER as compiled by Baseball Prospectus.

However, I’ve observed that Andrew McCutchen, whom Oliver rated as +4 runs in center field in 2008-2009 and had a good defensive reputaton, was -4 for the Pirates in 2009-2010. Neil Walker was considered one of the best defensive third basemen in Triple-A, but had a -5 season with poor range in 2010 for the Pirates after switching to second base.

Pedro Alvarez had a poor defensive reputation, but College Splits had him at +11 plays in his last two years at Vanderbilt. Oliver then had Alvarez at +5 runs in 192 minor league games, but -5 in 80 games in Pittsburgh. Alvarez did show good range with the Pirates, but suffered from too many errors. Oliver gave Ronny Cedeno +7 runs with the Cubs and Mariners in 2008-2009, +8 runs in 92 winter league games over the past three seasons, but -5 in 185 games with the Pirates.

No one ever accused Garrett Jones of good defense, but Oliver says +4 runs in 180 Triple-A games, then -20 in 240 with the Pirates. The only player coming to the Pirates who showed improvement was Jose Tabata, +4 runs in the previous three seasons, then +3 in 102 games with the Pirates, and a vast improvement over Lasting Milledge’s -25 runs in 171 games.

The absence of Zach Duke should help the defense, but with the exception of McDonald and Joel Hanrahan, Evan Meek and Chris Resop in the bullpen, the rest of the staff pitches to contact and has not shown a history of helping the defense.

Whom should the Pirates make the first overall pick in the 2011 draft?

One of the benefits of finishing with the worst record in the majors in 2010 is that the Pirates get to pick first in the 2011 draft. This is said to be a deep draft class, and the top two names being mentioned are Anthony Rendon, a third baseman at Rice, and Gerrit Cole, a pitcher at UCLA.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Rendon is said to have a good glove and hit 26 home runs as a freshman, 20 as a sophomore. What really catches my eye is his 31 walks and 23 strikeouts his freshman year, 65 BB and 22 Ks his sophomore. So far in 2011, with the new bats, Rendon has hit .348/.495/.600 in 19 games, with 19 walks and 10 strikeouts. When Oliver looks at those first two seasons, it projects a peak performance for Rendon of .280/.370/.510—fairly similar to what we’ve seen from Evan Longoria—and that he should require not more than a year, maybe less, to be ready for the majors.

Cole also has seen considerable playing time in college, starting 14 games as a freshman and 19 as a sophomore. Cole’s fastball was reported at 95-97 his freshman year, up to 98 and touching 100 in 2010.

His strikeout rates were consistently good at 29.3 percent and 29.5 percent his first two years, but I was concerned about his walk rates of 10.7 percent and 10.0 percent. Through March 17 of this year, Cole has improved to five walks and 37 strikeouts in 31 innings, rates of 4.5 percent and 33.0 percent, respectively. If he can keep his walks down, Cole looks to be a No. 1 starter ready for the majors within a year.

Should Pedro Alvarez be moved to first base to improve the defense?

Quick answer: not until they have someone better to replace him at third. The THT Forecasts say he should be good for a .345 wOBA in 2011, with a .255/.327/.477 slash line. That’s above average for a major league third baseman, where the mean wOBA is .329, and his projected 2.3 WAR is shown as 10th-best in the sortable batting list.

We’ll assume Alvarez’s offense will be the same whether he plays third or first, but the problem is that a player with that offense might be better than Lyle Overbay, but a .345 wOBA is nothing special at first base (ranking 21st), where the mean is .355. This method considers Alvarez’s value relative to the whole of major league baseball, but at this point he is competing for playing time only with players already on the Pirates (although the team is free to pursue other players through trades and the draft).

How good would a new third baseman have to be to make the move of Alvarez worthwhile? You would need to compare the combined value of the players at first and third before and after the move.

At third base, where replacement-level wOBA is .299, Alvarez would contribute 625 PA*(.345-.299)/1.15, or 25 batting runs above replacement, -5 fielding runs, for a total of +20. At first, with a replacement level of .332, it’s 625 PA*(.345-.332)/1.15, only +7 batting runs, and let’s say -2 on defense, for a total of +5. Alvarez at third (+20) and a league average player at first (+12) combine for +32. We’d then need a new third baseman who’s at least +27 to break even.

Overbay is projected for only a .339 wOBA as the Pirates first baseman, but is one of the best fielders at his position at +6 runs, so he comes in with a total +10 runs above replacement, only two runs below our mythical league-average Pirate. Either way, Alvarez’s replacement would need to be at least +25 runs, or 2.5 WAR, and there are only eight third basemen projected to perform at least that level, nine if you include Anthony Rendon.

I could pose another question, “How long until the Pirates are contenders?” But I also have to provide the answers, and for that one I don’t yet have an answer. But if Rocco has hope, then so should I.

In addition to writing for The Hardball Times, Brian has written for FanGraphs, consulted for a Major League Baseball team and invented the Oliver projection system. Follow him on Twitter @blcartwright.
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13 years ago

I should say, I think you’re underestimating their hitting prospect pool a little bit.  Brock Holt is not even their second or third best hitting prospect right now.  Sanchez, then Starling Marte, and maybe even Andrew Lambo are better.

Marte is a five-tool prospect.  He’ll be on every top-100 list this time next year.

Brian Cartwright
13 years ago

Marte is said to have all the tools, he just hasn’t had the production yet. Two years younger than Andrew McCutchen, he’s only advanced to High A, and his MLE’s the past two seasons were 249/298/328 and 253/303/356. His SO/BB both seasons was about 8/1.

Brock, on the other hand, has hit wherever he’s played. Junior college, Rice, Texas Collegiate League and in the minors, he’s made contact and had respectable walk rates. Four months older than Marte, he’s at the same level, and had MLEs of 248/297/371 and 307/355/383 (2010 cut short by injury after 199 PAs).

I’m still willing to bet that Holt will be a better MLB player than Marte. As a Pirates fan, I hope thy both turn out.

rob yontz
13 years ago

Andrew McCutchen is my pick to become one of the NL’s top players in 2011.  Slash stats in the vicinity of .300/.360/.800 and close to 70 extra base hits wouldn’t surprise me.

Anna McDonald
13 years ago

Great article Brian. Whenever you say something I listen. And I’ve wanted to know what to think of the Pirates.

Brian Cartwright
13 years ago

The .800 slugging is probably a typo, but if you are envisioning 35 doubles, 15 triples, 20 homers, yes I can also see McCutchen doing that in a good year…hopefully every year.

13 years ago

Ummm, what about Andrew Lambo?  He’s a hell of a lot better hitter than Brock Holt.  And he’s in AAA.

Brian Cartwright
13 years ago

I haven’t been impressed with Lambo, and I did see him in person two or three games in Altoona last summer. So far he’s not walked, not hit for power, and strikes out too much. His production the past three years is not encouraging.

rob yontz
13 years ago

Oh yeah, was thinking an OPS around .800.  I’m looking forward to15-20 triples from McCutchen.

13 years ago

Argh, your first paragraph reminded me Rocco was fired… Lame.

david crowell
13 years ago

James McDonald?  Hello?

Brian Cartwright
13 years ago

I did say that McDonald had the lowest projected ERA of any of the guys in the rotation, but at 4.42 it’s fairly average. In his favor I will mention here that his major league equivalent (MLE) ERA was 3.99 each of the past two years. What is it that I did not say about McDonald that you would have liked to have heard?

david crowell
13 years ago

hi—oh, it says Jason McDonald, doesn’t it?  and then the link is to a hitter by that name?  i think i just got a bit confused.

i admit it, i drafted james mcdonald in the 24th round for a bit of depth.  i’ve seen better projections than a 4.42 ERA, i guess, and also seen him tabbed as a possible breakout candidate.

Brian Cartwright
13 years ago

It does say Jason. My eyes kept telling me it was James. Sorry about that.

Each of the last two years he’s been nearly a half run better than 4.42, so yes he could be in line for a ‘breakout’.

david crowell
13 years ago

no worries, i really was genuinely confused there.  good article in any case.  i have an inordinate like for the pirates.